WASHINGTON -- President Clinton came through his initiation into global economic policymaking at the Tokyo summit with flying colors.
Clinton distinguished himself by forcefully representing the United States on tough trade issues with the Japanese. What's more, he took his arguments directly to the Japanese public -- demonstrating his leadership skills to a tough and skeptical audience.
All in all, it was a masterly performance, one made possible by the combination of the President's personal charm and his intellectual grasp of the problems besetting the economies of the industrial nations.
To be sure, the annual economic summits are always scripted events. There is the obligatory photo of the President standing alongside his foreign counterparts, and the TV crews always provide dramatic footage of diplomatic hobnobbing.
But for Clinton, it was clearly a challenge going to Japan, a nation where public opinion toward the United States has grown increasingly hostile. A poll taken on the eve of the summit by The New York Times, CBS News, and the Tokyo Broadcasting system showed that nearly two-thirds of the Japanese surveyed described relations with the United States as "unfriendly." Few Japanese had a favorable view of Clinton.
Clinton could have bowed to Japanese sensitivities on trade, stuck to his scripted diplomatic formulas, and claimed success. Instead, he boldly challenged the Japanese public to work to lower trade barriers to improve their own standards of living.
"This persistent trade imbalance does not just hurt American workers and businesses; it has hurt the Japanese people," Clinton said in a blunt speech to students and faculty at Waseda University. "It has deprived you, as consumers, of the full benefit of your hard and productive work."
Clinton told the Japanese that America is now the world's producer of many high-quality, low-cost goods and services. If these products become available in Japanese markets, they can help keep down prices of Japanese products while bringing jobs for American workers.
This is a message that the Japanese need to hear and believe. Quality of American goods and services is no longer an issue at a time when the United States is consistently racking up trade surpluses with European nations.
Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa flatly rejected Clinton's appeal to set numerical benchmarks for lowering Japan's $50 billion trade surplus with the United States. The idea is not workable or desirable for countries that are devoted to market economies, Miyazawa said.
But Clinton and his trade negotiators know the Japanese are masters at smiling and agreeing to broadly worded accords that give them another few years to maintain their dominance of international markets. Benchmarks are routinely used by the International Monetary Fund and the World bank to measure economic performance, and there is no reason they cannot be used by the United States and Japan.
The real reason the Japanese are resisting U.S. appeals to open their markets is that doing so disrupts powerful and profitable long-standing business relationships among suppliers, manufacturers, and retailers. These corporate ties, overseen by a friendly government, have played well, providing the Japanese with job security and plenty of consumer buying power.
Clinton was right in insisting that the tried and tested Japanese methods of doing business, while successful in many ways, are ripe for change. It was a theme that he reinforced by appealing to Japan to stand along with the United States in building what the President called a new Pacific community. The idea, which appealed to the Japanese sense of pride, won favorable local press reviews.
To be sure, the negotiations needed to win agreement on a new world trade agreement by the end of the year face some large hurdles. Clinton conceded that.
But the President clearly thrived in his role as an international master of economic policy. In his closing press conference, for example, he spoke knowledgeably of Germany's labor costs and unemployment.
And to his credit, Clinton did not promise any easy ways out of the slow growth and high unemployment that are testing the political skills of the leaders of the United States and other industrial nations.